Why I Should Stop Doing Web Development

MAMP does make my failure come faster, at least.
MAMP does make my failure come faster, at least.

A few weeks ago, I got home one evening all jazzed up to hack the Carrington Theme on a local web server I set up on my Macbook. I had some definite ideas for how I wanted the front page to look, so I wanted to edit the theme and achieve my vision.

Three hours later, all I had to show for the effort was having cut it down to a single sidebar and moved that sidebar over a bit.

It all makes me feel pretty stupid, because I work with computers for a living and feel like I should be able to “just get” this.  After all, I’ve built numerous web servers, personal computers, and am experienced with a variety of different operating systems, programs, and web platforms. But when it comes to coding a page, once we get beyond HTML, I’m practically a goner.

That’s the main reason I began using Content Management Systems (CMS) after all. Beyond a simple, relatively ugly page, I can’t create that good a website.  I should just stick to creating the content that the management system manages.

One of my resolutions this year is to write and publish a book, and I’ve got a few other projects that will hopefully come to fruition that I’m not ready to reveal yet. I’m not going to get all this work done if I keep screwing around with stuff I’m not good at, though. If I invest all of my time and energy into something I’m not good at, like web development/design, then there’s no time/energy left for the things I can do well, IE writing what I want to write.

It has become a guiding philosophy for me in the last couple of years that one should gauge and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, learning to get the most out of what they can do, rather than trying to exceed their limits or waste time doing things poorly. The only metaphor I have for this is in regards to fantasy fiction and wizards: a low-level wizard who knows how to use their power well will be able to apply it creatively and to great effect. In so doing, they may outperform a significantly more powerful wizard who is not creative and doesn’t use their power wisely; instead, the more powerful individual wastes their power because they don’t know how to use it, and the comparatively weaker of the two outshines them.

I can accept not being that great at something, but it means that I need to stop focusing on those projects that I just can’t do well. I’ll produce content, and if I have to someday, I’ll hire someone else to do my web development. For now, WordPress and Alex King’s contribution is good enough for me, and with the few minor tweaks I’ve made to it, it’ll manage my content just fine.

Categorizationing

After the mass export/import process, I then converted a ton of categories to tags in order to reduce redundancy and the size of my sidebar. Overall, the process went smoothly, but it left me with a lot of uncategorized entries that had to be fixed manually. Thankfully, the process isn’t too arduous, so I already have it fixed, and it gave me the good opportunity to skim some old entries.

It also put me in the frame of mind to remember that I’ve written a fair amount of stuff in the past. Therefore, when faced with Lorelle’s challenge of the week, I realized that I could simply link to an older article I’d written that addresses her question without having to invest time in writing a response. Of course, I had to add a disclaimer to the entry, and go through to update some things and correct grammatical mistakes, but it was a pleasant realization that the work was already completed.

I am on vacation all next week and quite excited about it. Most of my time will hopefully be spent at the Mudhouse where I will drink copious amounts of coffee and write-write-write. I did some more research on self-publishing today because I’m finally going to start on a book next week, though I haven’t decided which. I have four options on the table.

  1. Somewhat auto-biographical work that seeks to relate my conversion from paganism to Christianity, my experience with withcraft, why I made the decisions I have, and how Christians can address witchcraft in America.
  2. Editing together a book from about a year’s worth of theological writings by me (mostly from my sophomore year), geared towards college students and addressing the struggles of incoming freshmen in addition to the problems college students often encounter throughout their undergrad (in regards to their faith).
  3. A discussion of spirituality in America and how “spirituality” is not good enough titled Reconnecting with Religion (subtitle to be decided).
  4. A book about the Ten Commandments, one commandment discussed per chapter, that attempts to relate the historical context and meaning of each commandment, its application in modern society, and to do so in modern, easy-to-understand language.

Of these four, which appeals most to you? Where do you think I should invest my energy next week?

Step 3: Organizing Your Thoughts

When I first began using WordPress, tagging wasn’t available, so I never got into the habit of using tags. And despite the rise of websites like Technorati, I’m still not sure on their value overall. I have recently feared that I am becoming stuck in my old ways, but as I began this site redesign, a light bulb clicked on for me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate long sidebars, and one of the contributors to this is having a long list of categories. Previously, I put everything into very specific categories, and sometimes into two or more categories, to make finding entries easier for those who prefer to use a hierarchical navigation bar rather than the search feature. Using the categories is how I often navigated my site, but it cluttered my page and annoyed me. Tags address this issue quite succinctly.

First, we must acknowledge the power of search. Hierarchical navigation bars, while best suited for displaying the breadth of everything you have to offer, can become quite cumbersome. If you categorize and tag items accordingly, you need not have such a large navigation bar. In my case, I have opted to use categories but broadly, and to leave the specifics to tags.

What this translates to is that every poem I post on my writing blog will be categorized as Poetry. Forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, will be left to the tags, as will the content of the poem. I do not need a category for dreams just like I don’t need a category for fantasy fiction. Rather, I can have Dream and Fantasy be tags, and create the broader category of Fiction.

You need to consider your organization before ever beginning or it will quickly become too late to do anything about the matter. If you decide you have erroneously left tags off the last three hundred blog entries you wrote, going back and adding those tags will be immensely time consuming and frustrating. For the aspiring blogger, it is far better to not make the mistakes I did and leap in blindly, but to spend some time considering your goals and organization, then putting those into place from the word “go.”

Step 2: Visual Design

I am, to be perfectly, honest, an incredibly non-artistic person. I appreciate art, and I know what I like looking at, but I sometimes lack the vocabulary to discuss art and I am completely incapable of producing it. The written word is my forté, so when I began to design a new website, I was stymied.

The idea of creating a theme from scratch and of having complete visual control over one’s website is certainly appealing, but I lack the capacity for such design work. Therefore, I chose a few designs and showed them to Ryan, with whom I collaborated while creating SilverPen Pub revision 3.0. I would have a theme that I didn’t really like, but wasn’t sure why, and he would supply terms describing how its flatness and lack of depth failed to catch the eye or guide the reader to where you want them to spend their time. The current theme, however, worked really well, and after I bludgeoned one of my own photographs into the banner using The GIMP, I’m happy with it.

There are several things to consider when visually designing your website:

  1. Sidebars: How many do you want, and what do you want them to contain? Personally, I feel that sidebar length and composition is determined by logical order. That is to say, it should be organized logically, with clear reasoning why one item has been placed above another item. If your sidebar has reached a length where you are sticking things in with no justification for its placement–if you don’t care where something goes–then you are adding things to the sidebar that probably don’t need to be there. As much as I enjoy Lorelle’s blog, the sidebar annoys the hell out of me because I can’t find anything useful in it. It’s a mash of random things, with subscription buttons and book article advertisements littered throughout. After reading her article Who the hell are you? I began looking for her “About” section. Because it was hidden in the ridiculously long sidebar, I had to use Firefox to search for it to even find the oh-so-important statement she was talking about in her article.
  2. Mood, pathos, etc.: Colour is a tricky one, because it can affect how a reader perceives and responds to your blog. It affects the tone in which they read your entries, and if the appearance of your blog is offensive to them, they will certainly be unreceptive to what you have to say. Nevertheless, I maintain that the most important aspect of the visual design of one’s blog is that the author like its appearance. A reader can use an RSS feed, but the author cannot avoid looking at their own page. It is important to keep this aspect of visual design in mind, but it is perhaps not the most important. The only rule regarding colour is to make text readable. Stereotypical MySpace pages are bad, m’kay?
  3. How comfortable are you with editing code?: If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, you have a few more options when choosing a theme. You can pick one that’s close to what you are looking for, then edit the CSS and PHP files to make it exactly what you want. Conversely, if you just want a CMS where you can input your content and you’d rather not have to deal with anything else, WordPress has a lot of options to help. In this instance, however, you may have a harder time finding a theme that really makes you happy and gives you all of the content you want.
  4. Accessibility: I will write more about this at a later date, but accessibility is probably the most overlooked issue when it comes to personal blogs. Nevertheless, it is important to pay special attention to this aspect, if for no other reason than it is simply the right thing to do so. There are scads of guides online about how to make your site more accessible, so I won’t go into details on that, but keep in mind that you should try and make your blog as accessible as possible. This might require a little bit of coding on your part, but it’s not hard and can make a visually challenged person’s day a whole lot better.
  5. Content: Will your blog entries be short, or long? How far your readers have to scroll to read a particular blog entry might be worth considering, and can be affected by widening the content section of your design. However, keep in mind that long lines of text are awkward to the human eye, and anything beyond 80-120 characters is difficult for a person to read. Try to keep your content column at a reasonable width.
  6. Scaling: This is the first test I do to see how well a site is design. Does your site scale gracefully, or does your text go all over the place and become unreadable? This is partially an accessibility issue, but it’s also about standards; if you stay within the spec, your site will usually scale just fine. WordPress, by default, handles this pretty well, so you shouldn’t have any problems if you’re using WordPress as your CMS.

Once you strike a balance between these and have everything settled, it’s time to decide how you intend to organize your blog, which I will discuss tomorrow.

Step 1: Choose a CMS

This article is now somewhat out-of-date since I collapsed 4 of the blogs into one (Reading, Religion, Theology, and general updates are all in the same blog now, with separate blogs for writing projects). However, the principle is still the same, and the history of my experience with blogging is relatively accurate. Therefore, I’ve decided to use this entry as a reply to Lorelle’s current challenge, rather than writing a whole new one with most of the same content.

Prologue

In 2004, I became fed up with LiveJournal and Xanga. I had begun the former because a girl I liked (circa 2003) had a LiveJournal, and through my joining I discovered a great many of my friends were already using LJ. The next year, however, all of the people I met hosted their blogs on Xanga rather than LiveJournal, and so I created one of those as well to keep in touch with them. Not surprisingly, it was a pain to keep both sites updated, but that wasn’t the worst of it. LiveJournal and Xanga crashed regularly, so when I wanted to blog, I couldn’t. This was inexcusable.

Therefore, I hopped on NewEgg, specced out a new computer, and within a couple of weeks I had built a webserver in my bedroom. The entire experience was geared towards learning as much as I could, so I installed Linux on it (which I had never used at the time) and set up everything from scratch. WordPress was the blogging software I had heard the most about, so I ran through the 5-minute install and away I went.

For a little while, anyways. As a writer, I had a lot of work sitting around that I wanted to put on my website, and knowing as little as I did at the time, I created a static page on WordPress for each piece. Suffice it to say that WP doesn’t handle a large volume of pages on the backend very well, and once the database queries began taking 3-5 minutes for me to find a page so I could update it, I began casting around for a new content management system (CMS). Mambo was recommended by a friend and, after learning its somewhat ridiculous administrator interface, I created a second website just for my writing.

Those of you who have used Mambo, or Joomla! which is very similar, know that it has its strengths and weaknesses. It worked fantastically to display my work, but due to the very nature of it, my writing site stagnated. I always told myself I’d go back and revise items, but once I put them into Mambo, I didn’t have to think about it again. Moreover, it was such a pain to get the site themed and looking like I wanted it that I invariably “set it and forgot it.” The admin interface could be frustrating and nitpicky, as well as cluttered, so I often avoided logging in for as long as I could. In general, it wasn’t an enjoyable CMS to work with. And while WordPress was significantly more enjoyable, it simply couldn’t do the job.

The Present Era

As a sidenote, I looked at Drupal briefly, but was equally unsatisfied with it (perhaps more so than I was with Mambo/Joomla!). I began to despair, wondering at a solution, when I stumbled upon an article by Lorelle on WordPress that discussed the problems with using pages rather than blog entries. The wheels began turning, and I thought, “Why not have all of my writing be blog entries? Why do poems and stories need pages of their own?” Having them in the blog gives me all of the controls I’m used to, chronological organization, and an opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to: revise and share my work.

Therefore, I hatched a plan to use WordPress as my CMS and blog entries rather than pages to post and organize my work. As stated in my About page, there are five main topics on which I desired to write, but I couldn’t throw this all into a single blog or nobody would bother reading it. Moreover, I didn’t want to actually have five separate blogs, hearkening back to the days of LJ and Xanga (to which I crosspost automatically now through plugins) because updating would be a colossal pain (as would upgrading the software, especially since WP releases an upgrade every 3-6 months now, it seems). Therefore, I decided to try a personal installation of WordPress-MU.

WordPress-MU is often associated with WordPress.com and Blogsome, where you can install no plugins and the themes available are selected by the developer and largely uncustomizable. Due to this, the software has a stigma against it as being restrictive, but the truth is that around 95% of the code from WordPress is shared with WordPress-MU; they are very similar programs. And since I am doing this to create blogs for myself, there are no issues with restrictiveness.

To provide readers the option of only reading the content in which they are interested, I created a blog for each topic on which I intended to write (as well as corresponding LJ and Xanga accounts to which they crosspost for those who prefer to subscribe via those services). Because it is all through WordPress-MU, I administrate and post to the blogs from a single backend interface, and I will only have to upgrade one location for all of the blogs to benefit.

On the negative side, due to some of the redirection settings and requirements of WordPress-MU, some plugins (like the Ask-Apache 404 Google WordPress Plugin) simply refuse to work. Themes not written specifically for WP-MU will have problems with its registration page, and the configuration files require some hacking if you want everything to look nice (particularly if a user gets a 404 error but you don’t want them to register a new blog). WP-MU was created with the intention of running a site where users can create new blogs, so I’ve had to work around the software a bit for my purposes.

Nevertheless, it feels like the best CMS for me at this time. Few bloggers write on as many topics as I do and I haven’t heard of anyone organizing their site in this fashion, but this solution works well and gives me all of the benefits I want. WordPress is a very nice CMS and, while it certainly isn’t ideal for everything, I keep coming back to the question Lorelle asked that set this all off: why not use blog posts?

I am confident now that, at least for me, the answer is, “There is no reason, therefore I shall.”